SABADELL, Spain (AP) – The challenge facing Spain as it moves to stifle the push for independence in its proud and wealthy Catalonia region goes beyond stopping plans by separatist politicians to hold a referendum on secession.
Thousands of Catalans already feel as if they live in another country in all but name.
The red and yellow Spanish flag rarely appears on balconies across the region. Instead, pro-independence flags with a white star and blue triangle and red-and yellow stripes adorn streets marked by signs printed in the distinct Catalan language that bears about as much similarity to Spanish as does Portuguese.
“We say, ‘What do they say in Spain?’ It is an expression that has been said countless times,” Montserrat Coca, the owner of a bodega who only will sell wines produced in Catalonia, said. “We are Catalans; it’s as simple as that.”
Spain’s Ministry of Justice has warned that local officials who facilitate the Oct. 1 independence vote the Catalan government called last week risk criminal prosecution, yet over 600 of Catalonia’s 948 municipalities say they intend to open polling stations. It remains unclear what position officials will take in Barcelona, the regional capital.
Coca, 59, did not always favor independence. Her transformation mirrors those of scores of people in her hometown of Sabadell and across Catalonia, where the central government in Madrid is often seen as a distant troublemaker that takes more in taxes than it returns in services and roads, schools and hospitals.
Sabadell’s pro-secession mayor, Maties Serracant, cites as a tipping point the 2010 ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court that struck down key parts of a proposed charter that would have granted Catalonia greater autonomy and recognized it as a nation within Spain.
The court’s decision, combined with an economic downturn from which Spain has only recently recovered, pushed neutral Catalans into the self-government camp previously occupied mainly by residents with generations-long roots and for whom independence is an age-old question of identity.
“For me and for many others, the move from just feeling Catalan to wanting to live in our own country has gone very, very fast,” Serracant said. “It’s not just economic, it’s the sensation that everything that has come from Catalonia in recent years hasn’t even been heard or is just ignored.”
Many Catalans also have bitter memories of the prohibitions on the use of the Catalan language under the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Spain’s Gen. Francisco Franco. Since the return to democracy, Catalonia has achieved important levels of self-governance. School lessons are conducted mainly in Catalan. The region has its own police force, and runs a public health service.
Catalonia has formed part of Spain since the union of the crowns of Castile and Aragon, which encompassed present-day Catalonia, in the 15th century. While Catalans share many customs with other Spaniards, stereotypes paint them as more reserved and hard-working, with a good nose for business.
The caricature is summed up in the Catalan word “seny,” which can be roughly translated as the ability to exercise good judgment.
An hour’s drive northwest of cosmopolitan and touristy Barcelona, Sabadell is a quiet city of 200,000 with an industrial past. People once came from all over Spain to find jobs and opportunities there, but like many towns and villages across Catalonia, it has been swept up in the secessionist fervor.
Serracant brags of his town being “at the forefront of the push for self-determination.” He claims it is the biggest municipality in Catalonia with a town hall run by a majority of council members in support of an independence referendum.
“(Sabadell) is a city that does not historically have a separatist tendency, but now it is the city that is the most committed (to the cause),” said the mayor.
Serracant spent Wednesday in Catalonia’s regional parliament while separatist lawmakers held a marathon session to push through laws that they claim give the regional government legal backing to hold the independence vote.
Spain’s constitutional court suspended the scheduled referendum on Thursday after agreeing to review an appeal lodged by the Spanish government. The government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has vowed to stop the vote, arguing that a referendum affecting all of Spain would have to be voted on by all Spaniards.
On the outskirts of Sabadell is La Plana del Pintor, a humble neighborhood of ramshackle houses, many of which were built by migrants from southern Spain. There are no pro-independence flags on its sun-baked streets, but even here separatism has made in-roads.
Take 54-year-old Alonso Simon, a computer technician who prefers to speak Spanish instead of Catalan, enjoys traditional Spanish flamenco music and whose parents were from Madrid and southern Spain.
Simon complains that Catalonia provides more revenue to the rest of Spain than it should. He cites regular breakdowns on the train line run by Spain’s national rail service that passes through Sabadell, comparing it to the commuter train service operated by Catalonia that recently inaugurated a stop nearby.
“If they had had better infrastructure like we have now with the Catalan train, we would not have these problems,” Simon said. “The money we spend should stay here.”
After a surge in recent years, opinion polls show that support for breaking away from Spain among the region’s 7.5 million inhabitants has plateaued at around 50 percent. A large part of the half that opposes independence feels comfortable with a dual identity that is both Spanish and Catalan.
Manuel Antunez was walking his dog in a park when he stopped to lament the political crisis in Catalonia. Now 88, Antunez came to Sabadell in 1953, going to work in building Barcelona’s subway line.
“I feel bad because those who lifted Catalonia up are those who came from elsewhere,” Antunez said. “I feel Spanish and Catalan. It makes me sad. I don’t know how this can be fixed.”